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Witness Testimony of Alan G. Merten, Ph.D., on behalf of American Association of State Colleges and Universities, President, George Mason University

Executive Summary

Concerns Heard from Veterans Regarding Educational Benefits

 VA’s delays and problems in implementing Chapter 33 are well-documented in both hearing testimony and the press. Specific new concerns are as follows:

  • Veteran students filling out help desk tickets on the VA Web site are given unrelated information and directed to the FAQ site, causing frustration
  • Continuing delays (2-3 months) in receipt of Certificate of Eligibility from VA

 Feedback from Schools Administering Educational Benefits

Despite implementation pressures facing the VA, VA did not make an effort to understand how institutions operate and work with the Federal Government. Specific examples are as follows:

  • VA did not take advantage of existing program models directing federal funds to institutions on behalf of students (e.g., Title IV programs under the Higher Education Act of 1965);
  • VA’s interpretation of the higher education term “tuition and fees” caused significant confusion.  The higher education community usually refers to tuition and fees as a single amount, not two separate ones; VA’s separation of “tuition” and “fees” confused not only veteran students, but institutions;
  • The VA did not issue clear, coherent, and consistent Chapter 33 operational guidance to institutions, adding to increased administrative burden on institutions;
  • VA’s required fund return processes have caused veterans to owe significant monies to the Federal Government and do not align with the Return of Title IV Funds process under the HEA, which does not disadvantage students in this manner.

Needed Improvements to Chapter 33

AASCU recommends Congress consider the following:

  • Congress should clearly define the benefit amount for which an individual veteran student is eligible and eliminate the separate tuition and fee charts constructed by the VA;
  • Future legislation should clearly establish the benefit equal to the established charges for the program of education at a public institution, adhering to the underlying tenet of the Post-9/11 GI Bill of covering the cost of public education for veterans;
  • Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) should be implemented for online students due to enrollment patterns of veterans;
  • Congress should consider requiring VA to collect and publish more complete and timely data on Post-9/11 GI Bill usage, including VA customer service data for students and institutions.

Madame Chairwoman Herseth-Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, my name is Dr. Alan Merten and I am president of the George Mason University. Today, however, I am here to present the perspective of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) related to the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits program at its 430 institutions located in 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. Thank you for holding this hearing and providing the opportunity to present this testimony. The Post-9/11 GI Bill is an excellent, timely opportunity for veterans and their families to pursue postsecondary education.

I would also like to note that AASCU is the contract administrator for the Department-of-Defense-funded Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges (SOC). The SOC Consortium is a network of approximately 1,900 colleges and universities offering educational services to our nation’s Armed Forces and veterans. In order to be included in the Consortium, an institution must establish flexible policies appropriate for the unique demands on servicemembers and dependents. These policies address items such as enrollment and transfer of credit.

While national- and institutional-level data on the Post-9/11 GI Bill program and veteran students on campus is lacking, some specific data points about AASCU institutions serving veteran students are as follows:

  • AASCU’s San Diego State University, one of the many military-friendly AASCU institutions,  enrolled over 1,100 active-duty military, reservists, veterans, and military dependents in Spring 2009;
  • Of the 7 brick-and-mortar campuses reported by the VA as having enrolled the most veteran students using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits in 2009-10, 3 campuses (Old Dominion University, Troy University, and University of Maryland –University College) were AASCU members. These institutions enrolled over 5,000 of the 12,000+ students on those 7 campuses (approximately 43 percent of enrollment), with University of Maryland – University College alone enrolling over 3,000 veteran students;
  •  In 2007-08 (prior to Post-9/11 GI Bill implementation), according to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 21 percent of all military undergraduates (including active-duty, reserve, and veterans) were enrolled at public 4-year institutions.

When the Post 9/11 GI Bill was first introduced it was anticipated that colleges and universities would see a 20-25 percent increase in enrollment of veterans.  At Mason, we saw a 30 percent increase in our Fall 2009 enrollment of veterans and a 79 percent increase in Spring 2010.  One of those newly enrolled veterans introduced President Obama, Vice President Biden, Senator Webb and Senator John Warner, and Secretary Shinseki at George Mason University when the bill was introduced nationally on August 3, 2009.

The Committee asked us to address three areas:

  • concerns heard from veterans regarding their educational benefits,
  • feedback from institutions about implementation and administering benefits,
  • improvements to the Chapter 33 program that AASCU would suggest are needed.

Historically, GI Bill benefits were provided directly to the veteran student. As Vietnam-era veterans, my wife and I received benefits in this manner. The creation and implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program altered this dynamic by having the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issue tuition and fee payments directly to the institution after a certifying process. The compressed timeline the VA faced in implementing this program created a difficult situation.

I would like to highlight some of the issues faced by veterans on our campuses.  The VA’s delays and problems in implementing Chapter 33 are well-documented in both hearing testimony and the press. In fact, VA has gone on record to say that its performance was not acceptable. Thus, one of the major and universal issues being faced by veteran students is delays. In addition to delays in processing original benefits,  many Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit delays have occurred in reprocessing and in payment of other allowances, such as housing and book stipends. In addition, delays of up to a year are occurring with regard to appeals for claim re-evaluations.

Given that tuition and fee benefit payments are now directed to institutions, veteran students rely more heavily on school officials to provide guidance and information related to their benefits. The VA’s guidance to both institutions and veterans has been generally basic in nature. This has frustrated both institution officials and the veteran student population. Veteran students have informed institutions that they find the VA Web site—which VA has heavily publicized as a way of providing Post-9/11 GI Bill information to veterans and institutions alike—difficult to navigate. Reportedly, VA’s responses to inquiries submitted online are often inadequate and do not address the specific problem about which they have inquired. Students also find they cannot get through to the VA toll-free number (a problem shared by institutions). Institutions report that staff at the VA toll-free hotline provide information to students that is later found to be incorrect, which places more administrative burden on institutions.

The school official is not a VA employee and in many cases does this task as a collateral duty.  As a result of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the workload on these staff members has increased to the point that many schools like Mason have had to hire additional personnel to handle not only the certification process but the billing process as well.  While the VA does pay schools an annual reporting fee of $7.00 for each certified veteran, that amount hardly covers the costs.  Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) said, “the biggest obstacle might be reintegrating soldiers seamlessly into society,” and he suggests that higher education can do that better than any other institution.  Higher education can do this but it needs to be supported and equipped to ensure this success.

The Post 9-11 GI Bill has also presented higher education institutions with a number of challenges that many are not yet prepared to meet.  These include a number of student veterans with academic need, mental health and disability issues.

There are academic issues that many veterans face.  Some veterans require some remedial education before starting college, some because they have lost skills in the years since high school and others because they were not college-ready in the first place.  Some have received their GEDs through the military. Some may benefit from first attending community colleges whose open enrollment policies and education model is often more conducive to adult learners.

A recent RAND report indicated that 1 in 5 Post 9-11 veterans will suffer from combat stress or cognitive issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury.  These potential student veterans require additional support from university staff who must work with military specific combat stress issues as the veteran attempts to cope with battlefield experiences.  Not all schools and not all student health centers are equipped to address these needs.

In addition to the mental health issues, the Department of Defense indicated recently that there are over 36,000 service members who have been wounded in action.  Some of these wounded warriors have catastrophic combat injuries that are not typically found on campuses where disabilities have a far different meaning.  Such injuries represent a growing concern in higher education on how to be Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant since most institutions of higher learning are only prepared for historic disabilities.  Since this service is mandated by law regardless of cost, there appears to be no legally acceptable response if the institution were to fail in providing these services.

Despite the implementation pressures facing the VA—which AASCU fully understands—more effort on VA’s part to understand how institutions operate and work with the Federal Government should have occurred. For many decades, programs directing federal funds to institutions on behalf of students have existed, namely Title IV programs under the Higher Education Act.  Even a cursory examination of these programs would have guided the VA toward a more efficient implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Further, the VA interpretation of the higher education term “tuition and fees” caused significant confusion. The higher education community usually refers to tuition and fees as a single amount, not two separate ones; VA’s separation of “tuition” and “fees” into two discrete charts, while well-intentioned, was confusing for not only veteran students, but institutions.

Other higher education officials have testified before Congress to these same concerns. It is VA’s seeming refusal to take into account higher education’s established operating procedures that has led to many of the current implementation issues. While the delays above are an administrative issue, VA has not issued clear, coherent, and consistent Chapter 33 operational guidance to institutions. Campus administrators must routinely address diverse issues involving veteran students. Many of these issues are nuanced and need more than basic operational guidance. While we understand VA’s time constraints and initial focus on getting benefits processed, unfortunately the lack of clear and comprehensive guidance anticipating complex situations has complicated and delayed the delivery of benefits.

Institutions have the opportunity to elect to receive Post-9/11 GI Bill tuition and fee benefits for veteran students either electronically or via individual checks. Institutional feedback is that neither approach seems to be ideal. If institutions receive payments electronically, the electronic funds transfer process does not allow for individual annotations explaining why a particular tuition and fee benefit is being returned to VA (e.g., a student having dropped from full-time enrollment to part-time enrollment). If institutions opt to receive individual checks for each veteran student, a cumbersome reconciliation process is necessary for institutions to ensure the correct monies are credited to veteran students’ accounts.

A common concern is that administrative burden has increased throughout the implementation of the program, mainly due to the necessity to resolve over- or underpayments by VA. The issue of over- and underpayment requires close examination. When students change majors, drop or withdraw from a class, or have other life circumstances affect their finances or attendance, the institution must recalculate benefits. This reevaluation may result in either decreased or increased benefit eligibility. The VA issued guidance on how to handle these circumstances that required institutions to return all of the originally issued benefit and start the certification process over from scratch.

Contrast this process with the Return of Title IV Funds process under the Higher Education Act. In these situations, institutions recalculate benefit eligibility and adjust accordingly. If the student has received an overpayment, the excess amount is returned to the Federal Government. If a student is eligible for additional funds, the school requests the additional funds. In both situations, however, the student is not usually in a limbo state of having no funds credited to his or her account.

If, for some reason, federal Title IV grant funds received directly by a student (i.e., a refund of grant monies in excess of tuition and fees) are later determined to be an overpayment and thus must be repaid by the student, the institution can receive those funds from the student and conduct appropriate fiscal transactions with the Department of Education on the student’s behalf. That way, the institution is always acting on behalf of the student. However, this is not the case with Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits administration.

VA’s requirement that institutions return the entire initial benefit amount issued has placed veterans in the position of owing significant monies to the Federal Government. The VA is being extremely diligent in pursuing these veteran students; however, there are instances where funds returned to the VA by institutions were not properly credited by the VA to individual students' accounts. These processing issues have resulted in detrimental circumstances, as highlighted by the document attached to this testimony (see Attachment A).

To further complicate the return of tuition and fee funds in an over- or underpayment situation, the VA established two different procedures for the flow of funds. If classes have not begun, the institution must return the funds directly to the Federal Government. After classes have begun, VA directs that the payment—even if an overpayment—should be issued to the student. The VA will then collect any monies owed to the Federal Government directly from the individual. This further complicates an already convoluted process. Further, based on past experiences with over- and underpayments of Post-9/11 funds, some schools are reluctant to issue a check for over $20,000 to a student but would rather act as the responsible agent. By contrast, the benefit adjustment process for Title IV education benefits is the same throughout the entire academic calendar.

Given the above examples, it is difficult not to wonder whether if VA had better consulted with the Department of Education and/or higher education institutions during the ramp-up to Post-9/11 GI Bill implementation, some of its 2009-10 performance failures might have been mitigated and taxpayer money saved.

As noted earlier, Chapter 33 is a tremendous opportunity for veterans and their families to pursue higher education; therefore, we offer the following as suggestions to further enhance and improve the current program.

First and foremost, Congress needs to clearly define the benefit amount for which an individual veteran student is eligible. This specifically entails eliminating the separate tuition and fee charts constructed by the Veterans Administration as the means to determine Post-9/11 GI Bill payment eligibility. The current tuition and fee charts as constructed by VA are not only an interpretation of the current Post-9/11 GI Bill language that we believe Congress did not intend, but are also inconsistent with commonly accepted higher education practices, as noted earlier.

Standard practice in most institutions of higher education is to bill a student for tuition, required fees, and any other applicable charges (e.g., room and board for a resident student) for a single term. The bill is generally itemized—except at those institutions charging a “comprehensive fee” that includes tuition, required fees, room, and board—but usually not separated into one payment for tuition and one payment for fees. Federal Title IV funds are also generally applied to the total of tuition and fees rather than being divided into one payment for tuition and one payment for fees.

Thus VA’s interpretation of Post-9/11 GI Bill language to separate “tuition” and “fees” into two separate categories runs counter to how higher education operates. This is not merely a semantic issue. When the tuition and fee charts were originally issued by VA, this method had the financial consequence of lowering Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for veteran students in California, where “fees” are commonly used to characterize what other states call “tuition.” This terminology is common knowledge in the higher education community and to California residents. It was apparently unknown to VA. Fortunately, public outcry from both veteran students and public and private institutions in California—as well as Congressional concern—rectified this problem. But VA’s interpretation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill to create these charts negatively affected veteran students and institutions of higher education alike.

The Post 9/11 GI Bill establishes a highest in-state rate for the academic year that fails to take into account tuition increases at institutions during that academic year.  For example, at Mason our summer tuition rate increase was approximately 8 percent.  Since this increase was above the highest in-state rate established for the academic year, it was not covered

The underlying tenet of the Post-9/11 GI Bill is to ensure that costs at a public institution are covered for a veteran student. As such, any future legislation should clearly establish the benefit equal to the established charges for the program of education at a public institution. This removes any confusion between “tuition” and “fees” in different states and gives the veteran student a clearer idea of what he or she is eligible for in advance of enrollment.

In addition, there is a notion being discussed of designating the VA as the “last payer” for the veteran. While AASCU understands some of the reasons for this notion, please understand that the idea will not simplify Chapter 33 or reduce confusion for veteran students. Let me be clear: Should Congress pursue this notion, it will again be faced with rewriting this legislation within the next two years due to the intolerable chaos it will inflict on both veteran students and program administrators.

Even before the Post 9-11 GI Bill, Mason experienced a similar issue with our ROTC program. The Post-9/11 GI Bill is an entitlement for a veteran’s service to the armed forces but it cannot be used in conjunction with ROTC benefits, which are paid to a student for future service.  When we questioned this dilemma the VA stated that the student has to choose which federal benefit he/she wishes to receive.  A veteran shouldn’t have to forgo a benefit they have earned to take advantage of another.

Another issue that Congress should address on behalf of veteran students is related to providing a basic allowance for housing (BAH) for online students. Currently, BAH benefits are only awarded to veterans taking at least one course on campus. Nearly 70 percent of active-duty servicemembers take online courses; thus, as students transition to veteran status, they are already accustomed to utilizing distance learning options.  The lack of this benefit has resulted in decisions creating further hardship. For example, a student who otherwise would have taken an online course who now must travel to a face-to-face classroom may incur transportation costs or child-care costs that would have otherwise been avoided. Also, veteran students recovering from service-related injuries (particularly those students suffering from PTSD or TBI) report feeling forced to go into a classroom to keep their BAH even though to them, a distance-learning environment would better suit their recovery process.

Finally, AASCU would ask Congress to consider requiring VA to collect and publish more complete and timely data on Post-9/11 GI Bill usage, including data on customer service by VA to both veteran students and institutions. As has been noted not only in testimony to the House and Senate but in the higher education press and in other media, VA’s statistics related to Post-9/11 GI Bill usage and claims processing are incomplete and confusing. Publishing more timely and complete data would allow veteran students and taxpayers to better understand VA’s progress in administering this complex program. Furthermore, given that this is a new program, a unique opportunity exists for VA to use the data collected to refine and streamline its processes and functions. In addition, it will be useful for the larger higher education community to use the data in improving programs and services for veteran students.

According to the American Council on Education 2009 report on “Serving Those Who Serve:  Higher Education and America’s Veterans,” only about 71 percent of eligible service members use their VA education benefits, only 6 percent use their full benefits, and on average, they only use 17 months of a 36-month entitlement.”

While many of the circumstances highlighted today are a direct result of the Post-9/11 GI Bill implementation process, institutions like Mason stand ready to work with the VA in order to ensure ease of access for veterans enrolling in postsecondary education. Many of the issues discussed are operational in nature; thus legislative fixes are not necessarily appropriate. Furthermore, institutions of higher education were extraordinarily flexible and generous in the 2009-10 academic year at the request of VA when dealing with veteran students whose Chapter 33 benefits were delayed by VA’s implementation problems. 

The good news is that the VA has increased its outreach to schools and appears much more willing to work collaboratively and openly with the higher education community to understand how the VA processes—and their interface with higher education business practices—could be improved to better and more effectively assist veteran students.   We are encouraged that this effort will continue and can resolve the operational issues that have plagued implementation.

The initial unwillingness on the part of the VA to reach out to schools hurt veteran students first and foremost.  It also hindered the efforts of higher education institutions across the country to assist veteran students’ enrollment and facilitate their success.  The higher education community is prepared and eagerly looks forward to working collaboratively with the VA to streamline this program and reduce the confusion to institutions, the VA, but most importantly the veteran.

Thank you again Madame Chairwoman. I look forward to your questions.


Attachment A

The Higher Education community presents the following scenarios that lead to the return of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to the Department of Veterans Affairs. This outline of common scenarios is provided in response to VA concerns regarding the receipt of funds from institutions.

  1. Veteran enrolls but never attends class. 

When a veteran applies for Post-9/11 benefits, the institution of higher education must verify enrollment then complete and send the veteran’s Certificate of Eligibility (COE) to VA.  Upon receipt of the COE, VA calculates the veteran’s benefit and remits payment to the school, often prior to the start of class. Not infrequently, a veteran will withdraw before classes begin but after payment of Post-9/11 benefits has been received by the school.  This payment must be refunded to VA. 

  1. Veteran’s Post-9/11 benefits and other tuition-restricted aid exceed cost of tuition and fees.

Veterans are frequently eligible for multiple types of financial aid in addition to Post 9/11 benefits. Schools often receive other aid for a veteran after his or her Post 9/11 benefits have been received. When the combination of Post-9/11 benefits and other aid exceeds the cost of tuition and fees, the excess payment must be returned to the aid source. If we understand the proposed legislative change correctly, VA is ‘last payer’; therefore the Post 9/11 benefits comprise the excess payment and must be refunded to VA.

  1. Veteran declines Post-9/11 benefits after they have been paid by VA.

Veterans may change their mind and decide not to use their Post-9/11 benefits after they have already received them. These benefit payments must be refunded to VA.

  1. School receives Post-9/11 benefit payments from VA on behalf of veterans for whom school has not completed Certificate of Eligibility.

In order to determine a veteran’s eligibility for Post-9/11 benefits a COE must be submitted to VA by the school. If the school receives a benefit payment without having submitted a COE the payment must be refunded to VA.

  1. School receives duplicate and inaccurate Post-9/11 benefit payments from VA.

When schools receive a duplicate Post-9/11 benefit payment for the same veteran, the duplicate payment must be refunded to VA.  When schools receive an under- or over-payment of Post -9/11 benefits for a veteran, schools must refund the entire payment to VA and request VA to remit the correct payment amount. 

The table below contains specific examples of the situations described above. 

School

Example

1. Western Illinois University

Veteran withdrew before class after Post-9/11 benefits had been paid; WIU refunded benefits to VA via check in Dec 2009; VA cashed the check in Feb 2010 but didn’t process it to the veteran’s account until Aug 2010.

2. University of Illinois

Veteran received ROTC scholarship after Post-9/11 benefits had been paid; UI refunded benefits to VA via ACH in early March 2010 according to VA’s ACH return policy; VA still has not processed the refund and was still requesting payment from the veteran in late Aug 2010.

3. University of Illinois 

Per veteran’s request, UI refunded Post 9/11 benefits to VA via ACH in early March 2010 according to VA’s ACH return policy; VA did not process the refund until late July 2010; meanwhile VA reported veteran as delinquent to the credit bureaus, ruining his credit and causing Discover to cancel his credit card.

4. University of Illinois

UI received $8,305.60 Post-9/11 benefit payment from VA on January 19, 2010 then received another payment in the amount of $9,343.80 from VA on May 13, 2010 for the same veteran. 

5. Illinois State University 

ISU received payment from VA for a veteran’s books and supplies stipend (which should have been remitted directly to the veteran). 

6. Illinois State University

ISU certified a veteran’s Post-9/11 benefit eligibility at 70 percent but received payment from VA in March 2010 at 60 percent; ISU questioned VA’s eligibility calculation in March 2010 and was told by VA that 60 percent was correct; at veteran’s request, ISU questioned VA again in August 2010 and was told student eligibility is 70 percent.

7. The George Washington University

GWU received Post-9/11 benefit payments from VA via check and ACH for the same veteran.